Marketing to Generation X: They Don’t Care, But You Should
Nobody really writes about marketing to Generation X, but they’re actually one of the most important demographics out there at the moment.
Comprising 25% of the population, yet responsible for 30% of spending, Gen X has reached the peak of its career arc—but also needs every penny it can get (but more on that below).
Generation X can seem like a bundle of contradictions, but it’s really not. You just have to understand their history.
And these are the marketing lessons you can learn from that history.
They Smell BS a Mile Away
Gen X is probably the most skeptical generation out there, but that’s not always a bad thing. They’ve just grown up around older generations that have consistently acted in self-interest for decades on end.
They began to develop in the 1970s, known as the “Me Decade.” While we can’t pain an entire generation with a single brush, there was a trend of their parents just kind of buggered off to “find themselves.” It was a real phenomenon, and it culminated in peak divorce rates of 22.6% in 1980. There’s more:
- Their kids came to know separated families as the new norm. That separation carried stigma and broken commitments all the way to adulthood.
- Those kids were also called the MTV Generation—these people grew up with an unparalleled amount of advertising.
- Then the Dot-Com bubble popped just as they gained a foothold in the workforce.
You could say that Gen X knows an empty promise when it hears one.
You can’t exaggerate or try to gloss over crucial details. They’re used to it. And they didn’t grow up believing that anything was possible, so they’re not as aspirational as Millennials. “If it sounds too good to be true, then it is,” is a Gen X tenet.
Nothing less than honestly and mutual respect will win over Gen Xers. Completely leveling with them or using biting sarcasm to align your brand against broken promises they’ve experienced from other brands can go a long, long way.
They’re Bargain Hunters to the Bone
Gen X has experienced more than a half-dozen recessions and economic crises between 1970 and 2008. That’s no joke—take a look at these events:
- OPEC oil price shock (1973)
- Energy Crisis (1979)
- Global Recession (severe; early 1980s)
- Black Monday Stock Market Crash (1987)
- Savings and Loan Crisis (1986-1995)
- 1,043 out of 3,234 savings and loan associations failed. 747 closed outright.
- Global Recession (moderate; early 1990s)
- Dot-com Bubble Burst (2000-02)
- Great Recession (2008)
That’s left a scar on their sense of financial security. With a fair amount of Gen X growing up in single-parent households, they also learned how to live on a single income. Some of them had to.
They learned to rely on the tried-and-true products that they’ve relied on and stuck to them, probably out of necessity. They’re willing to wait to find the right price on everything they buy because they know a competitor or a sale is just around the corner, if they look for it.
That means many Gen Xers will check out Kijiji, the Facebook Marketplace, or Redflagdeals.com before they ever consider buying something brand-new (especially cars).
You can still get them into a retail space with door crashers and loss leaders, but you need to retain them with nothing less than real value and digital convenience.
Digital and Tactile Channels Count Equally
They love email but still trust in hard mail for the more “official stuff,” like birthday cards or sales flyers.
That’s the tug-of-war with Gen X on a technological level. They’ve become accustomed to the convenience of digital communications, but they still put their trust in hard, physical media when the chips are down.
You don’t need to try to guess which one Gen X prefers because there isn’t a clear preference across the generation. They grew up with analog media and adapted to digital media along the way, making them comfortable with both. They’re not vain enough to think anyone cares what kind of avocado toast they ate for breakfast on Instagram, but they check their email inbox multiple times per day.
So how do you reach a generation that waffles between traditional and digital channels?
You acquire them where they place real value to earn their trust (traditional marketing channels), then funnel them into digital channels, where:
- They reside most frequently on a day-to-day basis, and…
- You can remarket to them and nurture them more cost-effectively.
We’re talking about remarketing ads and email lists here.
Nothing less than a bargain will get Gen X to trust you with its email addresses, but you can bet they’ll open your promo messages regularly to get another one.
They’re the Only Adult Generation Left
Let’s be real: my Millennial peers tend to spend $400 on concert tickets when they can barely afford rent, and they spiral downward into an existential crisis if they haven’t engineered world peace within 6 months of starting their second unpaid internship.
The Baby Boomers have squandered their life savings and ruined key economic sectors with short-sighted policies and voting patterns, all the while acting as if their protest rock concerts somehow built civilization as we know it.
… and Generation X is caught in the middle, just trying to get s–t done.
That’s how they feel, anyway—and they’re not all that far off. Their parents need financial support for elder car because they spent previous decades buying houses they couldn’t afford with credit they couldn’t pay back.
They have to pay outrageous tuition prices for their children, Generation Z, to attend college. Then they come into work on Monday and listen to some Boomer boss (who refuses to retire or promote them) go on about how Millennials are destroying the fabric of society.
Then the entry-level Millennial breezes in at 9:10 AM, muttering about how she or he is so exhausted from that concert they went to last night because no one got home until 2:00 AM, despite knowing that Monday was going to be a work day.
It looks pretty bleak from Gen X’s point of view, so they’ve committed to a few approaches:
- Taking a hands-on approach to parenting. They don’t want to create more “latchkey kids.”
- Raising Gen Z to be independent and realistic, rather than aspirational like a Millennial.
- Working hard while also keeping an eye out for career opportunities, keeping financial stability in mind.
- Living within their means, because they know money doesn’t grow on trees.
They find happiness in their families, if not career fulfillment (but they are enjoying the peaks of their careers, as of writing). They look after the whole tribe, since Millennials are too young and Boomers are out to lunch. They’re looking after parents in old age and sending children to college at a time when elder care and education have never been more expensive.
And they aren’t complaining about it.
Nostalgia Is the Way to Gen X’s Heart
Gen X loves to revisit the ‘80s and ‘90s, when they grew up and went through college. Pop culture from those decades got pretty awesome, truth be told.
Movies, music, the rise of video games as we know them today, and catch phrases you heard on the schoolyard—it’s all there at your fingertips to pierce the advertising white noise. Gen X is willing to give up using a channel if that white noise becomes too much, which is what makes nostalgic marketing so useful.
It gives you that chance to say “I get you” before you get tuned out.
And that counts. Authenticity is one of the most important marketing tools at your disposal when you’re pursuing a Gen X audience. They’re more cynical than boomers or millennials, which means you’ll need every advantage to become a part of their tribe.
There’s so much out there to draw on:
- The Breakfast Club and “Brat Pack” movies
- Homages like Stranger Things, or even the remake of IT
- References to songs from Wham!, Rick Astley, Culture Club, etc.
- Sardonic references to being a “slacker”
- MTV or Much Music references
Nostalgia, sarcasm, and sensible bargains are love letters to Generation X. Write them with care and common sense to win them over as long-term customers, and enjoy their unprecedented level of brand loyalty.
SEO and Content Marketing Consultant
Andrew is the digital marketing consultant at Webb Content and currently the in-house Search Engine Marketing Specialist at aha insurance. He's worked in a few different agencies full-time and with another seven or eight as a consultant.
He's usually writing new content, finding new ways to optimize his websites, and fixing bad digital marketing wherever he sees it.
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